Why Is Genuine Religion So Hard?

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Most of us who are searching for God know that it’s hard to believe, and hard to be “good.” Many may have doubts about God’s existence, about the rationality of dogma, about the apparent contradictions in the Bible and mostly, about our own capacity to be God-like.

Religious and non-religious people have been dealing with these issues throughout history. But apart from our apparent incapacity to be God-like is our genuine incapacity to grasp the reality of the transcendent God, that he/she is wrapped in analogy, packaged in an enigma.

The fact that I feel compelled to continually use the annoying “he/she” illustrates the problem. According to all we know from the Bible and traditional theology, God has no gender. Yet we continue to think of God as a “he.” (Yes, God is a “he” in the Bible but scholars are of a mind that, considering the historical context, its authors had no choice but to use that designation.)

A Proton Praying to a Thunderhead

How can we grasp that God is everywhere, stretching beyond the ends of the universe, an invisible spirit without bodily assets like ears yet able to hear the prayers of each of us, even simultaneously? I read somewhere that a person praying is like a grain of salt in a pile as high as a building or like “a proton praying to a thunderhead.”

How can we grasp that it’s not just a matter of scale but that God is in “another dimension” of life? That for God there is no space or time? The Christian Bible hints at this in the Second Letter of Peter when the author says that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” We simply do the best we can to understand a God who is mystery.

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Yet, humans have been religious since the dawn of history. Some say we are “wired” to belief in God, or at least in a god. For many of us, the search for meaning is a search for God. For those in the Jewish-Christian tradition, we have the Bible to help (even with its apparent problems for modern readers). And Christians have the belief that God has intervened definitively in human history by becoming human!

Depending on how the question is asked, according to polls 80 percent to 92 percent of Americans say they believe in God. But there is a wide range of opinion about what “belief” means.

I’ve told this anecdote before in these blogs. I once overheard a conversation by two older men in a restaurant in Missouri in which one said his girlfriend had invited him to go to church with her. The other replied, “Good. Religion’s OK as long as you don’t take it seriously.”

Eugene Peterson, in his introduction to the books of the prophets in The Message translation of the Old Testament, writes: “Everyone more or less believes in God. But most of us do our best to keep God on the margins of our lives or, failing that, refashion God to suit our convenience.

Not As We Imagine

“Prophets insist that God is the sovereign center, not off in the wings awaiting our beck and call. And prophets insist that we deal with God as God reveals himself, not as we imagine him to be. For the ways of the world – its assumptions, its values, its methods of going about its work – are never on the side of God. Never.”

I believe the way we think about God, making him/her fit into our well-worn human notions, makes God easier to ignore. It allows us to substitute clichés and bumper-sticker “truths” for God’s word. It helps us put our convenience, our politics or our desire for acceptance, and for stuff, before God. It accommodates our indifference.

No, we who say we are searching for God need to take him/her seriously. In sincere prayer we must always understand that we worship a God who is completely unlike us. Yet, if we search for God in the Christian tradition, we have the assurance of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians that we can have intimacy with God and call him “Abba, Father,” knowing that “he” could also be viewed as “Mother.”

Despite contemporary society’s indifference toward religion, genuine religion can help us in that search and in that prayer.